Video Games Are Art

Smithsonian American Art Museum

I had wanted to write about video games as art for some time now, but I was worried that the question was no longer relevant–that most people (including me) had finally accepted the fact that video games can be art.  This past November, Disney released Wreck-It Ralph, a film which brings to life video game characters and worlds in the manner of Pixar’s Toy Story.  In his review of the film in The New York Times, A. O. Scott writes:

The secret to its success is a genuine enthusiasm for the creative potential of games, a willingness to take them seriously without descending into nerdy pomposity.

Clearly, I thought, this means that we’ve reached a turning point–that critics like A. O. Scott are now on board and willing to accept the aesthetic potential of games.

But I was wrong.  On November 30, Jonathan Jones, the art critic at The Guardian, published a blog entitled “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art.”  His blog is a response to the fact that the Museum of Modern Art in New York plans to curate a selection of video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.  Despite the fact that this is not the first time that an art museum will be playing host to video games (the Smithsonian American Art Museum held such an exhibit earlier this year), Jones has decided to put his foot down and play the predictable role of arbiter of what is and isn’t art (the role once famously played by Roger Ebert in this particular debate).  He writes:

Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination.

Whether through ignorance or idiocy, Jones has made an argument that is simply not applicable to video games.  If he were to watch the great documentary from this year on the subject of independent game design, Indie Game: The Movie, he would realize that he has no right to claim that video games are not the work of personal imaginations.  In that film, we see just how personal games can be to their creators.  We watch Phil Fish, for example, as he obsesses endlessly over every detail of his game FEZ, postponing its scheduled release for years and revealing how much of himself is in the game–how it has become his identity.  We also watch Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes as they complete Super Meat Boy, an ode to their childhood video gaming experiences. From the Wikipedia synopsis of the film:

McMillen talks about his lifelong goal of communicating to others through his work.  He goes on to talk about his 2008 game Aether that chronicles his childhood feelings of loneliness, nervousness, and fear of abandonment.

Surely this suggests the extent to which games can be the works of personal imagination.  Another film playing the festival circuit this past year, From Nothing, Something, a documentary about the creative process, also features a video game designer among its artist subjects: Jason Rohrer, who “programs, designs, and scores” his games “entirely by himself.”  It does not get more personal than that.

And this is not even limited to independent game design (a field which Jones might not even know exists).  Surely the games of Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto are recognizable as products of that creator’s personal vision.  Through pioneering works such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda, Miyamoto became one of the first auteurs of game design.

Regardless, Jones ends his argument against video games as art by making a point about chess:

Chess is a great game, but even the finest chess player in the world isn’t an artist. She is a chess player. Artistry may have gone into the design of the chess pieces. But the game of chess itself is not art nor does it generate art — it is just a game.

Jones’s use of chess to illustrate his case against the aesthetic value of games is interesting because he writes about the game in a previous blog titled “Checkmates: how artists fell in love with chess.”  In this piece, he doesn’t necessarily call chess art (he seems content to assign it the role of muse), but he comes awfully close:

It is a game that creates an imaginative world, with powerful “characters”: this must be why artists were inspired to create designer chess sets long before modern times.

On top of this, Jones seems willing to concede the fact that chess pieces can be art.  Would he also concede the fact that pixelated characters, orchestral scores, and other “pieces” of a video game can be art?  (To be sure, there are clearly “traditional” artists who work on individual aspects of games: graphic designers, writers, and musicians.)  My question would then become:  Why cannot the many artistic pieces cohere into a single work of art that also happens to be a game?  Architects create buildings that serve as works of art as well as living spaces.  Imagine an art critic who would perhaps recognize the artistry in a stained glass window yet say condescendingly of the cathedral in which it is found: “It’s just a building.”  The idea is absurd.

I am all in favor of meaningful distinctions between objects.  We can have art and games as separate categories.  But we must acknowledge that there can indeed be overlap.  I already demonstrated on this blog how food can serve both instrumental and aesthetic ends.  The same is true for games.

In his classic essay “The Artworld,” Arthur Danto writes:

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry — an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.

The fact of the matter is that video games have now been allowed into two respected art museums (the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art), the National Endowment for the Arts has started to allow funding for game designers, and the conversation about the artistic merits of games is alive and well–within the general populace, yes, but also within the hallowed halls of academia.  This is enough, in my opinion, to qualify video games as art.  Clearly, in practice, that is simply what they are.  Psychologically, people are experiencing them in the same way that they experience objects more commonly classified as art (e.g., novels and movies).  The fact that critics such as Jonathan Jones and Roger Ebert will not allow for the status of art to be extended to games–and that they would rely on smug and silly arguments to prove their points–says more about them than it does about the reality of the situation.  They are great critics, but here, where perhaps they feel their grasp loosening around that which they believed themselves to be experts, they are simply wrong.  We see some metaphysical justifications for their beliefs, but primarily we see the constricting influence of habit and conditioning–their inability to see other than what they have been trained (or educated) to see.  But no matter.  Others seem to have a much easier time seeing the artistic potential of games.

In an interview with USA Today about composing the theme song for the game Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Trent Reznor says:

I’ve watched with a kind of wary eye how gaming has progressed. I was there at the beginning with Pong in the arcade, and a lot of my great childhood memories were around a Tempest machine. I really looked at gaming as a real art form that is able to take a machine and turn it into something that is a challenging, human interaction puzzle game strategy.

And according to Penn Jillette (from the November 18 episode of his Penn’s Sunday School podcast):

Video games are culture; they are a new way of doing art.  You know, I fought against them at first.  I used to say that, you know, being able to make up a story as you went, I fought against that.  I did a couple of whole speeches about how you want the plot in Shakespeare.  But I’ve now understood.

And so have I.  The more interesting questions, moving forward, are: “By what criteria are people recognizing games as art?  By what standards of taste are these games being critiqued?”  As Luke Cuddy puts it in his review of the book The Art of Video Games in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism:

We must remember to compare the good to the bad, the same way we compare Foucault’s Pendulum (Umberto Eco, 1988) to The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003).

So what are the best games?  What are the worst?  What distinguishes them from each other?  I will leave those questions to the more experienced gamers and critics.

Further reading:

10 thoughts on “Video Games Are Art

  1. Most of the Final Fantasy games can certainy be considered art, not ony for the visual aspect, but also for the scores and the storyline. I’m sure there are several other games that can be considered art as well, especially some of the indie games you mentioned.

  2. I’m not a connoisseur of video games– I’ve only played a small handful of games over an even smaller handful of times– but simply observing other people playing them has taught me that they can most definitely be works of art as well as crafts for entertainment.

    I believe one of the foundational hangups some critics have in perceiving video games as art is the distinguishing (but erroneous) difference between static and interactive art. [I believe] they perceive art as being static, something that has been finished and can be approached in the same form time after time after time, whereas video games are process-based, and thus cannot contain the same creator-crafted message or stability of purpose as a static work of art. This, however, is blatantly erroneous, since the purpose of a work of art lies not in the work, but in the audience– art exists to change (and be changed by) those who perceive it. All true art is interactive: films have to be watched; poems have to be read; plays have to be performed. And many styles of art are changed by the process of being perceived– no play is performed in precisely the same way twice, just as no jazz standard will feature the same solo twice, or no “choose-your-own-adventure” novel will feature the same chain of events twice. In the same fashion, video games are [ultimately] static constructions (in that each game’s capacity for variation may appear endless, but has limits, no matter how broad) that are changed through the process of their audience’s [player’s] interactions.

    And like “traditional” art (those “objects more commonly classified as art (e.g., novels and movies)”, it is worth distinguishing between works crafted out of loving precision to elicit the response of “art” versus those simply crafted for mindless entertainment. No one should question the fact that the majority of the most popular books and films produced over the generations have been simple escapist entertainment, not high art. The same goes for video games. But a majority of art-poor products does not imply an art-less totality, nor does it negate the existence of those few art-rich creations. The existence of Platinum Dunes does not preclude the existence of the Criterion Collection.

    As for the concept of games or puzzles in general being perceived as works of art, surely no one can argue that there have not been artistic games: riddles are one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated established literary genres, but are they not simply word-games? Or knots and labyrinths, those visual/spatial challenges that also decorate some of the most artistic works ever made (the Celtic illuminations of the “Book of Kells” leaps out as an example, as do the sum total of Islamic non-pictorial geometric religious designs). Even jigsaw puzzles often use famous works of art for their images, and is a work of art made any less by its reproducible medium? A spray-painted Mona Lisa or a postage-stamp Warhol Monroe is still recognizable as art, so why not a Monet jigsaw puzzle, or “Dante’s Inferno” as a video game (2010, Visceral Games / Electronic Arts)?

    Perhaps one of the best examples of the transition from a video game as a simple artless puzzle to a carefully crafted, plot-driven work of art is the “Portal” series, in which the first game (Portal 1) focused more exclusively on the individual challenges the player must solve to advance from section to section, whereas the sequel (Portal 2) contained similar challenges but contained in a character-rich, linear-plotted, narrative-based work of art. And if that isn’t enough, one could argue that a mere game should require no backstory to play or appreciate, whereas a work of art like “Portal 2” depends on its backstory.

    As for the synthesis of video games into more traditionally established art, surely the “TRON” and “Matrix” film/TV franchises should be enough to convince even the most resistant critics that these connections are not only obvious, but desirable. Video games have already been transformed or translated into [non-video-game] works of art for over three decades, and the trend will only get stronger as traditional filmmaking mirrors video-game-making more and more, through the use of CGI, 3D, and other computer-generated and audience-constructed elements.

    Of course, these particular film franchises are also excellent examples of why some people are resistant to considering video games art– because machines scare them/us. The idea of machine-crafted virtual realities, of being victims of a machine-controlled environment or universe, and of being non-artist participants in machine-made art, is one of humanity’s oldest fears, and one that will again only continue to grow as our capacity for technology grows. Can machines make art without the involvement of humans? This is an argument for another time. But certainly humans are making art– be it film, music, literature, or video games– through the exclusive use of machines.

    • Thank you once again, Kent, for your thoughtful response. I agree with you on all points, and I would like to add to your discussion of video game-influenced movies by including this rejected paragraph from an early draft of the above essay:

      Video games are enough of a common experience nowadays that the aesthetics of the experience has been incorporated into other media. In film, we saw “Run Lola Run” in the late 90s, in which the protagonist must reach her goal within a specified time limit and in which she apparently has at least three lives. A precursor to this might have been “Clue,” based on a board game rather than a video game, but which also utilizes the ideas of randomness and chance by creating three different endings. More recently, we saw “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” which even pixelates the Universal logo at the film’s start to mimic the style of the 8-bit games to which the movie will make endless references (and which, as in Run Lola Run, will dictate to some extent the film’s narrative form).

      Another interesting (though failed) experiment in creating interactive art came in the web series “Splatter” (produced by Roger Corman and directed by Joe Dante). In this series, viewers were able to vote on which character would be killed off in the next segment. Though I was unaware of this while it was happening, I recently viewed the end result on Netflix. I found it so bad as to be almost unwatchable, even by cheap B movie standards. That said, I think future directors can potentially use the template for some interesting creations in the future.

  3. P.S.— if, as Alan Alda said, listening is the act of being changed by the other person [paraphrase], then art is the act of being empathetically transformed by the work of art. And what more empathetically transformative works exist than video games, in which the player actively and deliberately becomes the central character?

  4. This will be my last comment “in a row” for this post, I promise, and it is a cultural/political rather than a strictly aesthetic/philosophical one, but in the wake of today’s shooting in Connecticut, I am drawn to that tired old saw about fictional violence begetting (or at least subconsciously encouraging) actual violence. Forget “Pong” and “Super Mario Bros.” How many of today’s popular video games involve a “first-person shooter” pretext or character? Is this necessary? Artistic? Beneficial in any possible way? Forget the argument for video games as art. Is there a purpose to making video games as *games*– purposeless entertainment– that necessitates the almost universally exclusive sniper/shooter focus of emphasis? Thinking about my previous addendum regarding “empathetic transformation,” shouldn’t this at least be on the table for discussion in regards to the prevalence of shooter games in the United States?

    I’m not advocating the argument about how violence in art causes violence in life (cause is different from desensitization, and neither are necessary results of reflection), but I want someone to explain to me why >90% of video games need to promote the empathetic avatar of a gunman to provide escapist entertainment, artistic or otherwise.

    • I have no good answer to this. However, I can say that part of the reason I drifted away from video games was the growing popularity of the first person shooters. I just had little interest in them, and even less skill. They obviously tap into some sort of pleasure center in our brains, but what this means in a broader context I can’t say. I guess the easiest answer is that the games allow us to sublimate some of our dark, bestial drives into healthy, socially acceptable virtual competitions. But who knows?

  5. I have one further point I would like to stress. I think that even the oldest arcade games, which are usually lacking in strong narratives or other artistic elements, can still be perceived aesthetically.

    For example, the classic Williams arcade game “Joust” (as well as its many clones and Nintendo-produced knockoffs–“Mario Bros.” and “Balloon Fight”) presents a truly fascinating and philosophically rich 2-player mode. When the game starts, the two players have a choice. They can play competitively, hindering each other as each attempts to achieve the higher score; or they can play cooperatively, working together to advance as far as they can without worrying about individual scores. I think that how we play a game like “Joust” can say a lot about where our social values lie and on which side of the political spectrum we may fall. Thus, ideas can be communicated even through the oldest examples (the “cave paintings,” if you will) of video games.

  6. “And gamers beware, I am even thinking about a movie version of a video game or mobile app. Once completed, you can engage me in debate on whether you think it is art.” (Roger Ebert, “A Leave of Presence” [])

  7. Okay, posting the Ebert quote this morning is just too macabre. Or maybe too perfect. Whether we agreed with him or not, he was a powerhouse figure, and deserved to be recognized and reckoned with. R.I.P.

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